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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain


At the seaside

by New Worker correspondent

FOR THREE DAYS last week the Trades Union Congress held its belated annual bash in Brighton, postponed by the passing of the late Queen from its usual position in the second week of September.

Until fairly recently this used to be one of the great political events of the conference season. It received wall to wall TV coverage, except when Playschool was on or when the Chair allowed the stranger speakers to mount the rostrum. Battalions of the now almost extinct tribe of thirsty labour correspondents from the broadsheet and tabloid newspapers religiously attended. Such was its influence its 1968 centennial was marked with a postage stamp – then a very rare honour. Its 150th bash went largely unremarked.

In those halcyon days no Labour Cabinet ministers or Shadow Cabinet ministers dared avoid the jamboree. Debates were listened to intently because they shaped policy, not just for the TUC but for the Labour Party and governments. Frequently the outcome of debates was uncertain due to the fact that there were a much larger number of unions, which have long since merged into more general unions.

This time round Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer was the only Shadow minister to address Congress. He used the occasion to pledge to abolish the 2016 round of Tory anti-union laws but took care not to support any current industrial action or to say anything about older anti-union laws, nor to support a decent pay rise for NHS workers. Unlike TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady, he did not take part in a picket line photo opportunity.

After Starmer’s wishy-washy speech (which got an almost unanimous round of applause), Unite General secretary Sharon Graham said: “Britain is in the middle of a horror story. When the government talks about ‘difficult decisions’ this is code for ‘workers and communities will pay’. The UK is being lined up for austerity mark two. We need a change in government.”

a message

She concluded by saying: “Warm words are welcome, but we now need a message from Labour that is clear and action based that shows the country what they can vote for, not just what they should vote against.” Best not hold our breath for that.

Paddy Lillis, General Secretary of shopworkers’ union USDAW, was in raptures at the same speech, however, saying: ”[Starmer] promises a new deal for working people within the first 100 days of going into government. A new deal that will end low-paid insecure employment, give workers the dignity of a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work and security of employment.” One wonders if he still believes in Santa Claus.

Unclear

The TUC has 48 affiliated unions representing a total of 5,336,600 members, at least it had in July of last year. It is unclear what effect the recent upsurge in strike action has had on union membership figures. One suspects that there has been some increase for this reason but given that strike actions have generally taken place in hitherto well organised industries, the increase will be likely a fairly small one. There are in all about 6,555,000 trade unionists in Britain, with over a million in non-TUC affiliated unions. These include those too grand for the TUC such as the British Medical Association (BMA) for doctors, street unions such as the United Voices of Workers for migrant cleaners, and staff associations such as the splendidly named Retail Book Stationery and Allied Trades Employees Association for WH Smith employees.

A slight majority of trade unionists are female, density in the private sector is an abysmal 12.9 per cent, whilst 51.9 per cent of public sector workers are union members, over all, less a than a quarter, 23.7 per cent to be precise, are in unions. Across the industrial sector density ranges from 51.4 per cent in education, 37.7 in transport and storage, down to a miserable 4.3 per cent in accommodation and food services. Not a pretty picture. In all about half the strength of the glory days of the late 1970s.

The largest union is now the giant public services union Unison with 1,206,000 members, with Unite on 1,171,000 being overtaken last year. The smallest TUC union is the pitiful remnant of the Nation Union of Mineworkers (NUM) with 199 members.

To return to the actual conference, as always the Congress had a theme: this time it was “We Demand Better” – which sounds militant without actually meaning anything. All in all, there were 72 motions before compositing to make them fairly harmless and acceptable to all sides.

Most were in union terms common sense. So far as can be seen all but one was passed, which was remitted for further consideration. This was an attack of the use of fossil fuels, curiously enough from the recently founded Artists Union England. No doubt this would have been brutally attacked by unions with interests in these industries.

Mixed

The TUC was against some things and in favour of others.

It was in favour of “Higher pay to tackle the cost-of living crisis”, “Strengthening collective bargaining and employment rights following the P&O scandal”, “Hot food for healthcare workers” and “Industrial strategy for UK to provide appropriate fit for purpose PPE”, amongst other things.

At the same time, it was against “Inequalities in Health”, fire-and-rehire, the “government’s unlawful immigration system” and sexual harassment in the workplace.

Worthy?

Not all readers of the New Worker will be delighted by the affection with which the TUC regards Channel Four. It describes the BBC as a worthy institution for which we should all cough up through the licence fee, but wisely did not say it was a source of truthful news as most delegates would know from experience how the BBC either ignores or distorts reporting of industrial action.

It also said that plans to privatise Channel 4 would be an act of “cultural vandalism that must be vigorously opposed”.

There was not a single motion entirely devoted to international affairs, but there was a video address from the Colombian Minister of Labour. Colombia has long been a popular source of Congress House internationalism. It is not a controversial one because it does not involve any serious anti-imperialism, nor is it likely to provoke reaction from right-wing delegates as do Cuba and Palestine solidarity. The latter of course instantly brings up absurd charges of anti-Semitism that the TUC is too frightened of to oppose.

The large-scale murder of trade unionists under previous Colombian regimes made this issue an easy target but even so, little real action can be expected from Congress House. This correspondent recalls the TUC refusing to support a picket of the Colombian Embassy organised by London trade union councils until there was a nice round number of murders to make it worthwhile protesting about.

Of course, it is not only on this issue that the TUC does little. While the Congress passed worthy motions about a £15 per hour minimum wage and the “right to food”, a great deal of work is required by activists to turn these motions into reality.

Controversial Motion

There was one motion that generated real controversy and a narrow card vote of 2,556,000 votes to 2,469,000 in favour of composite 2 “Economic recovery and manufacturing jobs”, which recognised that: “Congress believes that rebuilding a modern, high-tech, manufacturing sector as the fundamental wealth creating aspect of the economy should be a priority. This will restore and redistribute wealth to ensure a more equal society for all workers.”

The narrowness of the vote was due to the small print in the GMB motion supported by the Prison Officers Association (POA). Although mover Nigel Warn correctly said that job losses in manufacturing would be devastating for working-class communities “from Glasgow to Barrow-in-Furness to Derby”, the manufacturing jobs he had in mind were largely those in the arms industry and it successfully called on the TUC to repudiate its “policy carried in 2017 in favour of diversifying away from defence manufacturing is no longer fit for purpose”.

High-minded opposition came from, amongst others, the National Education Union (NEU), who denounced it for “producing arms that will be sold to Saudi Arabia to kill kids in Yemen” and said that instead the TUC should follow the advice of a motion supporting “just transition” … “as a solution to these high-skilled jobs in Barrow and Derby and elsewhere, not investment in pointless, unproductive, murderous weapons”.

Predictably however, the motion passed, in this case thanks to engineering union Unite weighing in with “serious reservations” to keep its lefty activists happy with the qualification that military spending should take place in these islands and, if so, increased arms spending was unnecessary to defend existing jobs.

too long

Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner lamented that: “For too long taxpayers’ money has been used to prop up the economies of Texas, Pennsylvania and Virginia when government should be investing in jobs and communities here at home.” He said it was much better that “our naval support ships are built here with UK steel and composites, cabling and technologies, in shipyards from Appledore to Belfast, Birkenhead to Rosyth”. So that makes military expenditure OK then.

The TUC obviously approved of this stress on arms production because the GMB’s motion on arms was actually composited with another from the POA that spoke of manufacturing industry in general.

Had the two motions been left intact delegates could have voted for the nice POA motion, rejected the nasty GMB one, and still supported manufacturing. As with the Fossil Fuels motion, there is a need to balance the risk of exterminating the human race through war or global warming with the need to save jobs and union dues.

Pot Calls Kettle Black

Connoisseurs of irony will be delighted at Composite 20 entitled “Sweetheart deals and unions working together”, which piously applauded “the solidarity of union members and affiliated unions standing together to take action against the poor employment practices of some employers in the education sector”, and equally denounced “some unscrupulous employers [who] have sought to avoid recognising affiliated unions with an occupational and established membership claim, including through the practice of ‘sweetheart’ recognition agreements”.

That is all well and good, but it came from teachers union NASUWT and the GMB. In May of this year the latter signed just such a deal with delivery firm Deliveroo, which was designed solely to shut out the small non-TUC union the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) that had spent six years actually organising Deliveroo drivers.

At the time, IWGB fumed that “this partnership benefits nobody except Deliveroo and the GMB leadership, and we call on the Government to review the Union Recognition legislation”.

GMB has form in this area – in June last year it signed a similar deal with taxi firm Uber, just after IWGB was gaining ground in organising them. In both cases wage negotiations were specifically excluded from the agreement with these notoriously anti-trade union companies. Signs of any GMB activity on behalf of Deliveroo and Uber drivers are hard to see.

Footnote to Congress

The Royal College of Podiatry nobly submitted a motion that deplored ill-fitting and wrong footwear. They properly declared that “whether you work on a building site, as a dancer or a professional sports person, access to the right footwear is vital to health of the nation’s feet” and called for a tightening up of health and safety legislation on the issue.